March 29, 2024

Visiting Valletta

by Ian McIntosh

For a lot of people, Malta’s Valletta is a one-day stop on a Mediterranean cruise. As you roll up you firstly marvel at the height of the ancient walls built by the Knights of St John to protect the settlement. A quick stroll and you are at what is called the Upper Gardens - a magnificent lookout over the entrance to the port - and beyond. From here a short walk and you are in the colourful streets admiring the elegant baroque-style buildings. 

There are moments when you could be in Barcelona - even Venice comes to mind. People are everywhere - many of them enjoying a glass of local wine in one of the never ending street restaurants. The culmination of the walk is to arrive at the Malta's most famous church, the spectacular  St. John's Co-Cathedral, located in the centre of the city, just off Republic Street. It was built by the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar for the Knights of St John between 1573 and 1578. The interior of the church is considered to be one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe. Mattia Preti, the Calabrian artist and knight, designed the intricate carved stone walls and painted the vaulted ceiling and side altars with scenes from the life of John the Baptist. Despite all of this magnificence one work of art stands supreme - The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1608) by Caravaggio (1571–1610).  Considered one of his masterpieces, the largest canvas he painted and the only painting signed by the painter, the canvas is displayed in the Oratory. Having explored these wonders the cruise passenger heads back to the ship more than satisfied with a great day of visiting a charming and memorable destination. Few will know that most of the city they have just explored was reduced to rubble during the second world war. 

Despite being one of the smallest countries in Europe, Malta endured some of the fiercest fighting thanks to its strategic location on the main supply lines to North Africa and the Suez Canal. On 30 April 1942, Malta endured a greater tonnage of bombs than in any one month during the Battle of Britain. Between them, German and Italian forces held the island nation to siege for almost two and a half years in the hope of starving and bombing its people into into submission. Out of date Gladiator biplanes, named Faith, Hope and Charity, provided the only defence. As the attacks worsened and the siege lengthened, Spitfire aircraft were sent from Britain to defend the skies above. Only about 1500 Maltese people died during the bombings - mainly because families lived like rats in tiny  tunnels dug out by the knights as escape routes. We explored their underground world today - horrific barely describes how they had to exist. 

Surprisingly a number of Australian pilots were involved in the constant air duels as the British had their own problems to contend with. Our flyboys were hailed as heroes by the locals.

If it was not for the supply convoy Operation Pedestal which landed in August 1942  the island may well have capitulated and surrendered. The most crucial supply item in Operation Pedestal was fuel, carried by Ohio, an American-owned tanker with a British crew. The axis (Germany and Italy)  attempted to prevent the 50 ships of the convoy reaching Malta, using bombers, German E-boats, Italian MAS and MS boats, minefields and submarine ambushes. More than 500 Merchant and Royal Navy sailors and airmen were killed and only five of the 14 merchant ships reached Valletta’s Grand Harbour.

You can come face to face with one of the Gladiators in the must see Valletta War Museum by the way - it was found crashed in a local quarry and restored by the RAF.  However the highlight of the many informative displays in the museum is a huge live ground screen that shows operation Pedestal in operation from above as the ships are torpedoed and strafed by aircraft. A brilliant concept that brings the horrors of this epic voyage to life. 

The wonder of it all today is it's just about impossible to believe that most of the buildings around you have been reconstructed. Pictures show the arrival of Spitfires, the Grand Palace and The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1608) by Caravaggio.

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